University research should not be undermined

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Although the sheer scale of the numbers of animals killed by animal testing at the University might come as a shock to many, it must not be forgotten that this has become an accepted, and possibly essential, practice in modern society. Animal testing has led to breakthroughs that have helped us all; it’s not pleasant, but it is something most people accept.

The University holds a leading position as far as national research is concerned and animal testing will contribute to part of this. Of course, there are serious ethical questions as to whether killing the animals on campus is necessary and I can fully understand why some people disagree with the practice. While the figures indicate it is an everyday occurrence at York, in comparison to other institutions, the University has not been as extreme. Newcastle University has faced severe criticism for testing on primates.

That kind of research is very different to York’s testing on mice, rats, and frogs. In fact, I will extend an invitation to the science departments to come to Halifax and get rid of the rats that seem to be lurking around my accommodation, but not the hedgehogs, we like them.
The campaign group that has had some success at other universities, is now targeting York. However, their methods of campaigning threaten to undermine their cause further. The campaign at Newcastle caused controversy as protesters entered banned areas and clashed with police. The storming of laboratories and the sabotaging of the University Ball, as seen at Bradford, is not the right way forward. If they continue to act in this manner they will lose the sympathy of their own supporters.

It has been argued that animal tests do not always provide successful results and there are alternatives. But until truly effective ways to conduct the same research at the same rate become available, a small amount of animal testing is morally acceptable. 10,000 is a lot of animals, but animal testing is currently the only way that gives the most accurate results without testing on humans. Alternatives such as computer programmes and testing on proteins are evolving but are still not as effective.

It is important to remember that many of the big scientific breakthroughs have come from animal testing at universities. This is the reason why the practice has continued for years, despite campaigns against the use of it. The University’s testing is classed as “moderate” by the Home Office, and as long as this does not progress any further, that may satisfy most.

The solution for the University is a compromise with the campaigners. 10,000 is too many animals to be killed in research each year. However, the testing should continue if there is a chance of scientific breakthrough. But only when a more effective method of research becomes available will the practice really be able to stop. Because only then will it become unjustified.

9 comments

  1. You’re right that animal testing can provide huge benefits, and there are extensive regulations today which limit the harm and suffering to the animals involved. Without going into the complex ethical questions, I’d like to point out a few things that you didn’t really go into:

    – Alternatives aren’t as under-developed as you suggest. Veterinary and medical students often use interactive computer models (in the US especially). LD50 and Draize tests have already been replaced by the Limit Test and the use of Corrositex, a kind of synthetic skin. There are computer programmes in use which test toxicity of new chemicals. There are human epidemiological studies, tissue culture tests, and more and more advanced computer modelling. If you want concrete examples, all the way back in 2000, 3 US agencies accepted chemical safety data from Corrositex instead of animal tests; in the same year the EU accepted 3 in vitro toxicity tests into its official guidelines meaning when these tests are feasible, the member nations must prohibit animal tests.

    -Animal research can sometimes be misleading. If you look up the names Hugh LaFollette and Niall Shanks, you’ll find their argument that an effective polio vaccine was delayed for years because of reliance on misleading animal models.

    – Putting that to one side, we could also argue that although animal research has indisputably yields benefits, can we say for sure that *only* animal research could ever have yielded these benefits? E.g. Could less of a reliance on animal testing have prompted quicker technological shifts, or more ethical human testing? This is hypothetical, but worth remembering when deciding who gets what funding.

    – We know for a fact that many tests go ahead that are unnecessary (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14294642). This is because animal research benefits are possible, whereas harm to animals in all testing is certain. If as the BBC reported 1 in 10 tests on primates were unnecessary, things need to be improved urgently.

    -This may seem unimportant to many people, but the welfare of test animals in terms of how they are housed, handled and transported can be lacking; this isn’t only cruel but is bad science, as stress etc. can affect results. Exposés on animal testing centres can be found quite easily, like this one http://www.peta.org/features/professional-laboratory-and-research-services.aspx. If you use animals this way for a living, it is no surprise that staff can end up no longer seeing them as beings with the capacity for great suffering.

    Basically, you can’t get around the fact that the welfare of these test animals still needs to be greatly improved, and more rigorous guidelines for what constitutes ‘necessary’ research are still needed. And don’t underestimate the power of habit and tradition – many researchers like to stick to the old ways and are sceptical of new ways of testing.

    (Most of the info above came from David DeGrazia’s Very Short Introduction to Animal Rights).

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  2. The use of animals in research has undoubtedly led to many significant scientific breakthroughs, and will continue to do so.

    Despite this, I still struggle to come to terms with the ethical justification for forcibly using non-human animals, but not forcibly using (some) humans. It seems inconsistent.

    Doing more research on humans would, scientifically, be much more useful than doing it on non-human animals. But we deem it morally unacceptable to force *any* human to be subjected to research, even though some humans experience a mental life which is no more advanced than many animals. If we’re ok with doing research on animals, we should be ok with doing it on (e.g.) babies with terminal illnesses, or individuals who are severely retarded.

    If we’re not ok with research being done on these humans, we should not be ok with it being done on non-human animals.

    At the very least, most animals in laboratories are reasonably well looked after. The same cannot be said of many farm animals. The main focus of animal rights should be on what we eat, especially given that far more animals suffer and are killed in abbatoirs than in laboratories.

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  3. Animal research – in reality a very diverse body of scientific techniques – has played a vital role in many of the most important medical advances in recent decades, a fact that is clear to anyone who visits the Nobel Prize website and takes a look through the prizes awarded in Physiology or Medicine over the past century.

    The development of the polio vaccine is an example, as while monkeys were not a perfect model for studying the polio virus they played an absolutely crucial role in the identification of the virus and the subsequent development of the Salk and Sabine vaccines. For a summary of the key contributions that resarch on monkeys made to development of the Polio vaccine see http://speakingofresearch.com/2011/02/01/the-monkeys-who-gave-summer-back-to-the-children/

    Of course the polio vaccine was developed more than 50 years ago, but animal research continues to play a crucial role in driving forward the most exciting fields of 21st century medicine. A good example is induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, whose discovery through research on mice by Professor Shinya Yamanaka has in the space of 5 short years opened up a whole new area of stem cell research, one that is still growing apace http://speakingofresearch.com/2012/06/14/millenium-prize-2012-mouse-stem-cell-research-heralds-a-new-era-in-biomedical-reserch/

    These are but two examples, one from the past and one from the present, out of many thousands of the importance of animal research. The vast majority of scientists and physicians support animal research precisely because they are well aware of how important it is, and that there are currently no viable alternatives to animal research for obtaining much of the crucial information that is required in both basic and applied animal research. This is not to say that animal research is the only important kind of research, it plays a role alongside a wide range of other techniques – human genetics, proteomics, cell & tissue culture, structural biology, bioinformatics & computational biology, epidemiology etc. etc. that all complement each other. It is not a case – as many anti-vivisectionsists would have us believe – of either animal research or other techniques, in reality the different approaches work together to achieve the ultimate goal of developing new therapies for diseases.

    For a reliable source of information on animal research in the UK, see tha Understanding Animal Research website at http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/

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  4. @Gill It’s illegal to use an animal for an aexperiment if there’s an alternative. You need animals to study processes like metastasis because as yet they can’t model an organ, let alone a cancerous one. You can only have a model after you understand how the thing works, which they don’t yet.

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  5. @Si, I did say that – ” the EU accepted 3 in vitro toxicity tests into its official guidelines meaning when these tests are feasible, the member nations must prohibit animal tests.”

    But there are still many tests done each year which are unnecessary, as the report I linked to above shows. We haven’t reached the level where only truly necessary, unreproducible tests are being done.

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  6. “It’s illegal to use an animal for an aexperiment if there’s an alternative.”

    Where did you hear this? I’m pretty sure it’s compulsory to do animal testing for new drugs and medical procedures etc.

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  7. The Nazis felt justified experimenting on human beings (Jews, Gypsies, etc.) because the lives of those being experimented on weren’t as valuable as the Nazi soldiers the research would help. How is what we do different? Experiment on human volunteers or human prisoners who have been convicted of violent crimes. The latter is far more moral than torturing other species whose only crime is that they are to weak to defend themselves from us.

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  8. @Jon D., Human volunteers, yes, but the suggestion that we should be doing medical experiments on prisoners without consent is barbaric.

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  9. Really? I think it is far more moral than testing on animals. I really don’t care what we do as long as we quit enslaving and torturing animals. Our bullshit specisism has got to stop!

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